Villanova Wildcats

Jalen Brunson shows what he's not afraid of for Villanova

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Jalen Brunson shows what he's not afraid of for Villanova

BOX SCORE

NEWARK, N.J. — On Wednesday morning, Jalen Brunson was named a semifinalist for the Naismith College Player of the Year award. But for a large portion of Wednesday night's matchup with Seton Hall, Brunson didn't have the look of one of the 10 best players in the country. 

In the first 36-plus minutes of action, the junior guard had just two points and zero assists, while missing eight of his nine shots from the field.

But in the game's late stages with the Wildcats needing him most, Brunson looked every bit of one of the nation's top players. 

Mixing in clutch jumpers and free throws, Brunson scored 12 of his 14 points in the final eight-plus minutes of action to lead No. 4 Villanova to a 69-68 OT win over Seton Hall at the Prudential Center (see observations)

"That's the sign of a great player," head coach Jay Wright said. "He's not afraid to fail. He loves having the pressure on him and on his shoulders. That's what the great ones do. That was vintage Jalen Brunson. Just no fear of failure."

After a rough offensive performance from both sides in the first half, Villanova jumped out to an 11-point lead at 36-25 with over 12 minutes remaining and appeared well on its way to an easy win. But Seton Hall responded with a 14-2 run of its own to get itself right back in the game.

With the Wildcats holding a one-point advantage with under four minutes remaining and Seton Hall refusing to back down, Brunson began cooking. 

Brunson would trade a trio of clutch buckets (one layup and two jumpers) with the Pirates over the next couple minutes of play, giving Villanova a 50-49 lead with 1:05 remaining. 

"Honestly, the shots [just] went in," Brunson said. "Just lucky that those shots were going in. I kept my confidence and kept my cool."

While Brunson missed a key front end of a one-and-one with 23 seconds remaining, which was followed by Khadeen Carrington splitting a pair of free throws to send the game into OT, the 'Nova guard carried his hot shooting into the overtime period, hitting back-to-back jumpers to give Villanova a five-point lead with 35 seconds left.

Then, with 'Nova up one and six seconds on the clock, Brunson returned to the free throw line and drilled both attempts this time around.

After struggling all night, Brunson made five of his final six shot attempts and two gigantic free throws to lead Villanova past Seton Hall.

"My teammates have the confidence in me at all times," Brunson said. "So does my coach and so do I. I just try to keep the same cool and not really worry about what happened in the past. Just keep moving on."

"He's a big-time player," said Mikal Bridges, who poured in a team-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, "[With] him, it's all attitude. He missed a lot of shots, but still had that free mind where, like, 'Who cares? It's my next shot. I'm gonna take that next shot anyway.' Proud of him. He made big buckets and played real good on defense." 

With the win, Villanova avoided a second straight loss and kept itself alive for the top seed in the Big East Tournament heading into the final weekend of the regular season. And while it certainly wasn't pretty — Villanova shot at a 36.4 percent clip and connected on just 8 of its 36 threes — Brunson and the Wildcats believe Wednesday night's offensive struggle will better prepare them for the upcoming postseason play. 

"Beleive it or not, I would rather not have played the game like that, but we needed to play in a game like that," Wright said. "Where we just couldn't make shots and our defense kept us in it."

"This is a great game, a great defensive game for us. Something we really needed," Brunson added. "For us to struggle like that offensively and still stick together is something we definitely needed. We just gotta keep building off that."

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

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As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

The decisions made by Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to remain in the NBA draft should ultimately be a good thing for the Villanova basketball program. DiVincenzo and Spellman join college teammates Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson in the 2018 draft class and there's a chance all four of them are selected in the first round. 

Having four players drafted in the first round will do wonders for Villanova on the recruiting trail. The caliber of high school players that Jay Wright recruits want to play in the NBA. Wright could point to the four first-rounders the program produced this year in addition to former players like Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono currently playing in the NBA.

While Wright's program will reap the benefits of producing NBA talent in the long run, there is no disputing the fact that DiVincenzo and Spellman deciding to leave is a significant blow to the program in the immediate future. DiVincenzo and Spellman would have been Villanova's two best players next season. Two guys capable of leading the Wildcats to a third national championship in four years. 

But their departures bring about a new reality for Wright — his four best players from last year's team are gone and he has only two proven players returning to lead his team into the 2018-19 season. 

The proven returners
Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall combined to start 69 games last season and each played a critical role in winning the program's third national title. Next year will be Booth's fifth in the Villanova program and Paschall's fourth. These are proven performers and, more importantly, reliable leaders for what will largely be an inexperienced team. Booth will be one of the best guards in the Big East next season. Paschall is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference and his improved perimeter shooting last season was a key factor in Villanova winning the national championship.

Other key returners
This group will be the most important variable in Villanova's success next season. Collin Gillespie heads into his sophomore season poised for a big year. He made significant contributions off the bench as a freshman, overcoming an early season wrist injury that sidelined him for the better part of six weeks. A healthy and confident Gillespie will be a huge part of the Villanova backcourt. 

Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree rounded out Villanova's seven-man rotation last season. Like Gillespie, he enters his sophomore season with a wealth of big-game experience. Cosby-Roundtree proved his worth last season as a high-motor big man specializing in defensive energy, rebounding and running the floor. He'll now be asked to contribute on a more consistent level offensively.

Jermaine Samuels will play a critical role. Another rising sophomore, Samuels was making strides as a freshman before a broken hand sidelined him for an extended stretch during the beginning of conference play. He was never able to re-establish himself in the rotation once he returned. Samuels has all the physical tools to be a high-level Big East wing player in the mold of Hart and DiVincenzo. Keep an eye on Samuels.

Then there's big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season. Painter showed promise towards the end of his freshman season in 2017. The hope is that a year spent working on his strength and athleticism will pay dividends. The redshirt formula has been a big part of Villanova's success. Painter could become the latest example of that. 

The new arrivals
Wright welcomes in his highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. The headliner is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who originally committed to Arizona but then de-committed in the midst of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Wright is confident that Quinerly will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will be eligible next season. Quinerly should make an instant impact, the next in a long line of terrific Villanova lead guards.

Cole Swider should also see significant playing time as a freshman. Swider is listed as a forward but is more than capable of doing damage from the perimeter thanks to his elite-level shooting ability. Swider is a natural scorer and should be a perfect fit for Villanova's three-point heavy offense. Brandon Slater is the third member of Villanova's freshman class, an athletic wing who will have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

Villanova will also bring in at least one graduate transfer for next season. Joe Cremo has already committed to Villanova after starring at Albany the last two seasons. He averaged just under 18 points last year and shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range. The question is whether Cremo's production will carry over to the Big East level. Wright is hopeful that it will. Look for Cremo to be a key addition to the Villanova backcourt. 

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

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Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

Another Villanova star is moving on ... maybe.

Donte DiVincenzo has declared for the NBA draft but will not hire an agent, meaning he can test the draft waters but will maintain his college eligibility should he chose to return to school. 

The redshirt sophomore was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 31 points in Villanova' national title win over Michigan. 

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. His numbers jumped to 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists 54.7 percent shooting during the NCAA Tournament.

He must decide by May 30 if he will enter the draft or return to school.

DiVincenzo is the latest Wildcat to declare for the draft, as the mass exodus of stars continues for Villanova.

Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson have declared and hired agents, marking the end of their collegiate careers, while redshirt freshman Omari Spellman will also test the waters.

On the bright side, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall announced they will both return for next season.